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Diversity presentation to council draws DEI critics

Ahkirah Bahiyyah Greer presents the results of diversity study to the Hendersonville City Council. Ahkirah Bahiyyah Greer presents the results of diversity study to the Hendersonville City Council.

Holding signs with a red strike-thru over "DEI" and others that said "DEI=Marxism," opponents of Hendersonville's Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative listened as a consultant presented the findings of a seven-month-long study of race relations and other diversity topics in the city.

The City Council heard details of the study from Ahkirah Bahiyyah Greer, who explained that the report distills the interviews and forums she and her Ahkirah Legal and Diversity Consultants team conducted and data they collected. Among the topics covered were hiring, marketing, communications, conflict resolution and complaint resolution.

It appeared that there were at least 25-30 opponents of the DEI initiative at the council meeting in the City Operations Center and a handful of people in support of the effort. Had council members allowed public comment, they almost surely would have found themselves facing a fusillade of negative comments, and likely some public support as well. The most obvious sign that it was the DEI discussion that had drawn a crowd of about 35 people? When it was over, the meeting room emptied out.

The council took no action on the DEI report. It's the council practice during its mid-month workshop meeting to hear longer presentations but not take votes.

Among the questions department's came up with were:

  • "For the Planning Department, how do we identify internal candidates in a fair and equitable manner?"
  • Fire Department: "How do we communicate decision making on line and how can we best ensure a diverse pool of applicants."
  • Public works: "What have we learned about hiring and how can other departments benefit?"
  • Human resources: "How can the HR department help actively improve recruiting?"

Recommendations in the DEI study leaned strongly into the value of communications inside and outside City Hall of city policies, hiring practices and promotions. Parts of the presentation focused on customer service and employee relations without regard to race or diversity. Topics included how city employees might resolve a conflict with one another, whether departments had a written mission statement, hiring and onboarding of new employees and interpersonal interaction in the office.

Last October, the Ahkirah Legal and Diversity Consultants team administered the Intercultural Development Inventory Assessment to 12 council members and others and created scores for each. For the next several months, the consulting team will be back in town to work with the council on implementing recommendations, Greer said.

Acknowledging that the process had involved many difficult conversations, City Manager John Connet endorsed the effort and said it was needed to make Hendersonville an attractive workplace, especially for younger people.

"Our team has been very engaged," he said. "I've been amazed to hear from our staff who have interacted in these topics, particularly some of younger staff that have appreciated the fact that we are asking these questions. They're very professional minded and I just appreciate their efforts and the work that they do."

He thanked the city's Diversity & Equity Committee, which the City Council in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in 2020.

“I attended some of the focus groups,” he said. “I had heard bits and pieces of the history and I didn’t fully understand where they were coming from. I had my own thoughts about what certain terms meant, whether it be urban renewal” or other local change. “My personal view was different from other folks in the room…. I hope we're building strong relationships because we do have a lot of interaction with people in this room and people in the community and it's important that we understand each other. I appreciate the leap of faith that the diversity community took when we made the decision to hire a consultant. … We had to be willing to stretch ourselves a little bit. I appreciate the work of Ahkirah’s team and my team.”

The next steps, Connet said after the presentation, would be the City Council’s adoption of a strategic plan for implementing the DEI recommendations and focus groups inside and outside City Hall.

“They are definitely uncomfortable conversations and they will continue to be uncomfortable conversations,” Connet told the council and the people in the assembly room. “But we're going to continue to move our community forward. If we want to create great team members, we have to have these conversations. If you talk to anyone under the age of 35, we have to have these conversations.”